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03/25/2024 Nicaragua (International Christian Concern) — As Holy Week approached, Nicaragua’s draconian Ortega regime had already started cracking down on plans to celebrate the most important week on the Christian calendar. According to attorney Martha Patricia Molina, the government has nixed 4,800 processions planned for the Easter season. 

Processions are an important part of Catholic religious practice in Nicaragua and the surrounding area. In most cases, Molina wrote in a Facebook post, parishes plan to conduct the procession inside the church. In a few cases, processions have taken place around the block rather than through town, but even these are known to have been canceled at the last minute by local authorities. 

The Catholic church has been heavily targeted in recent years due to its outspoken criticism of the regime’s sordid human rights record and its decision to shelter student protestors in 2019. 

Molina spoke at the International Religious Freedom Summit (IRF Summit) earlier this year, illuminating the worsening situation in Nicaragua at an event planned by International Christian Concern, the International Republican Institute, and others.  

Elsewhere at the IRF Summit, an expelled priest told his story and urged the audience of 1,500 to pay attention to the atrocities taking place in Nicaragua. “We raise our voice to organizations and countries with a democratic vocation so that they turn their gaze to the church and people of Nicaragua,” he said. “The Catholic Church is the last stronghold, the last non-aligned institution left in the country after the regime has made all political parties disappear.” 

Targeted by the Ortega regime, conditions are only worsening for the Nicaraguan church. 

“As a church, we are living through the worst moments in our history in Nicaragua since its arrival more than 500 years ago to the present moment,” the priest told the gathered audience. He himself was arrested, insulted, beaten, and imprisoned for months, while his family in Nicaragua is left to live with police parked outside their home, watching their every move.

This type of surveillance is increasingly common in Nicaragua where, according to the priest, “every Sunday, patrol cars full of police are parked in front of the country’s Catholic churches” and “the faithful who attend the Eucharist on Sundays are photographed [and] the homilies delivered by the remaining priests are being recorded.” 

This type of surveillance regime is strikingly similar to that imposed by China on its religious communities. Nicaragua maintains a close relationship with China, which it sees as an important ally in the face of increasing sanctions from the West and a struggling economy. In December 2023, China and Nicaragua announced upgraded relations, bringing the two autocracies even closer together than before. 

In July 2022, Nicaragua expelled 18 nuns from the Missionaries of Charity order, founded by Mother Theresa and active in Nicaragua since 1988. According to the BBC, the nuns were bussed under police escort to the country’s southern border and made to walk across into Costa Rica. The Missionaries of Charity were stripped of their legal status in late June, an administrative measure that laid the groundwork for their later expulsion.  

Earlier in 2022, the Ortega government expelled the Vatican’s ambassador to Nicaragua, drawing pointed condemnation from the church. 

The U.S. Department of State added Nicaragua to the Special Watchlist (SWL) of countries with particularly severe violations of religious freedom in 2019. This designation continued until 2022 when it was raised to the Countries of Particular Concern (CPC) list. The latter designation indicates increased concern about the state of religious freedom in Nicaragua and normally carries certain legislatively mandated consequences in the form of sanctions. 

“Catholic clergy and laity continued to experience government harassment,” said a 2022 State Department publication, citing media reports, “including slander, arbitrary investigations by government agencies based on charges that clergy and laity said were unfounded, withholding of tax exemptions, and denial of religious services for political prisoners.” 

The U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) similarly began including Nicaragua in its report in 2020, recommending that it be added to the SWL then and upgrading its recommendation to the CPC list in 2023. 

Arguing for its CPC recommendation in a 2023 report, USCIRF noted that “despite the high level of persecution against Catholic leaders since protests in 2018, 2022 was the first year in which the government imprisoned members of the clergy.” 

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